Northampton Press

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Concert Review: java and jive with the young J.S. Bach

Wednesday, May 7, 2014 by PAUL WILLISTEIN pwillistein@tnonline.com in Focus

"Young Meister Bach," a comic opera commissioned by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, which made its Bethlehem Bach Festival debut May 3, provides a fun and fascinating insight into the early years of Johann Sebastian Bach.

"Young Meister Bach" is presented again during the festival's second weekend, 10:30 a.m. May 10, Baker Hall, Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University.

The approximate one-hour and 10 minute take on young Bach humanizes a classical music icon, not unlike the stage play and movie, "Amadeus."

The ambitious work, which has a very humorous concept as its foundation, seems well-researched. The text, which is entirely sung as is the practice with opera, is verbose with the text taking up some nine pages in the performance program.

The storyline has to do with an apparent altercation between Bach and a bassoon player which supposedly ended up in court, disagreements Bach is said to have had with his employers about the degree of difficulty of singing his compositions, and Bach's mentorship with Buxtehude, a composer of some renown in Bach's time (1685 - 1750).

The staging utilizes few set elements: a desk for the courtroom, and a depiction of pipe organs. The actors pantomime the playing of musical instruments. The acting is in the style of a silent movie, with exaggerated physical reactions and facial expressions.

"Young Meister Bach" was composed by Chuck Holderman, Bach Festival Orchestra principal bassoonist, with libretto by Bill Bly, Bach Choir tenor; stage direction by Christopher Shorr, Moravian College theater program director; co-production design by Shorr and Jp Jordan, Touchstone Theatre artistic director; costume design by Amy Best, and lighting design by Emma Chong.

The cast, which is vibrant, engaging and, by turns, in beautiful and impressive voice, includes: Jeff Chapman, baritone (J.S. Bach); Leslie Johnson, soprano (Maria Barbara); Stephen Ng, tenor (Narrator, Magistrate, Walther); and Brian Ming Chu, bass-baritone (Count, Geyersbach, Buxtehude, Superintendent).

The featured ensemble from The Bach Choir is: Beth Allen-Gardner, soprano; Shannon Aloise, soprano; and Wendy Borst, Stacy Gabel, Christina Lamonica, Grace Spruiell-Hochella, David Umla, George Spelvin and Todd Fennel.

The rest of the Bach Choir, with 75 members, and a smaller version, at 23 members, of the Bach Festival Orchestra, accompanies.

Also presented May 3 and 10 in Baker: Bach's "Coffee Cantata," featuring Johnson, Ng and Ming Chu. This is a delightful piece, sort of a "Java Jive" celebrating the proverbial Cup of Joe.

"Kaffeekantate" (1732), or "Scheigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, and stop chattering"), is Bach's satire about the attempt by Prussia's monarch, Frederick the Great, to blunt the "coffee craze."

In the one-act operetta, Lieschen (Johnson) rebuffs the efforts of her father, Schlendrian (Ming Chu), to keep her from her coffee. The narrator (Ng) ties it all together.

Johnson prances, swoons and twirls, savoring her precious cup of coffee with élan. Johnson is a total delight in the role.

You can attend "Young Meister Bach" and the "Coffee Cantata" as part of the 107th Bach Festival, or the only the Saturday morning program.

Either way, you don't want to miss this wonderful interpretation of a great composer in the making and of Bach's paean to coffee.

Tickets: bach.org, 610-866-4382, 888-743-3100